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Commentary: Honoring their Legacy


Each February, the DOD focuses on National African American/Black History Month and the contributions of African Americans to society.  

Even though the congressionally mandated celebration takes place once a year, it should be said that African Americans have played vital roles in influencing our American military history, which cannot all be captured in just 28 days.  

Holloman AFB has seen a number of African Americans pass through its gates, contribute to the mission and transform it for the better.  

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., Ph. D., and retired-Col. Gail Benjamin Colvin are two examples of African Americans who left Holloman a far better place after their tenure.  

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., Ph. D., was called a “negro genius” by the national press. Dr. Wilkins is one of America’s most important contemporary mathematicians. At the age of 13, he became the University of Chicago’s youngest student. Dr. Wilkins earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in mathematics. Upon graduation, he taught mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute before joining the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory in 1944.  

Working in collaboration with Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi, Dr. Wilkins researched methods for producing fissionable nuclear materials, focusing in particular on Plutonium-239. In the fall of 1944, he was scheduled to be transferred to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for a new scientific position, but due to existing Jim Crow laws, he was prevented from accepting the position there.  

However, Edward Teller endorsed him for a position with Eugene Wigner who was researching the design and development of nuclear reactors that would convert uranium into weapons grade plutonium. Dr. Wilkins collaborated with Wigner on research in neutron absorption, leading to their discovery of the Wigner-Wilkins approach for estimating the distribution of neutron energies within nuclear reactors.  

He did not learn the purpose of their research until the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  

Additionally, another influential African American leader is retired-Col. Gail Benjamin Colvin. She currently is the director of staff of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. A native of Brooklyn, New York, she graduated and earned her commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Colonel Colvin was one of the first African American women to graduate the USAFA in 1980, where she was at the forefront of the Academy’s gender integration. She has been breaking barriers for women and minorities in the military ever since.  

Her 30 year military career is marked by diversified leadership experience in a wide variety of disciplines including joint military doctrine, research and development, and weapons system acquisition. One of the many firsts, she and her brother are the first brother-sister duo to attend the Academy as classmates. She and her husband, James Colvin, are also the first Air Force couple to transfer a squadron command from husband to wife. She is the Air Force Academy’s first African American alumni to achieve the rank of colonel, making her and her brother, Philip Benjamin, the first African American siblings to simultaneously hold the rank of colonel.  

Prior to assuming her current position, she was the commander of the 49th Mission Support Group, here. Under her command, Col. Colvin put an extreme emphasis on teaching and mentoring her staff members demanding excellence in all that they do. She was passionate about educating people and expected nothing short of greatness in return. She is a visionary and charismatic leader. She is an advocate for culturally responsive leadership based on access, equity and inclusion. She has commanded at the squadron and group level, and served in a variety of positions at the United States Air Force Air Staff as well as at major command levels.  

Currently, she oversees the administration and organization of the Academy’s staff, and she is the first African American, first female and first civilian to hold this position.  

The achievements and contributions of J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., Ph. D., and retired-Col. Gail Benjamin Colvin are only a few examples of the great servant leaders, heroism and contributions made by African Americans during modern day society. These are two amazing people who evolved our military into is something we should all be proud of.  

Nonetheless, their stories should be repeated thousands of times. We cannot forget their legacies that represent the contributions of African Americans who date back to the origin of our nation.